From Humble Beginnings to Opulence to a Humble Ending: The Perpetual Practice of Humility

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My name is Tom Monaghan. I got involved in the pizza business to pay my way through architecture school. I had no interest in pizza, other than the fact that I liked to eat pizza. It was supposed to be something where I had time to go to school, because I was in partnership with my brother. We did not have any money, but we borrowed the down payment and took over a lot of notes. Then my brother backed out from working it; so, I had to run it myself. I could not go to school and work full time, so I ended up eventually buying my brother out.

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By the time I was 24 years-old, still a freshman in college, I was getting nowhere with all the dreams I had for my life. I had big plans, but I was stuck in the pizza business for 38 years. However, once I got into it, I started liking it, particularly the delivery aspect of it. One reason I liked the delivery aspect was that – because it was so difficult – nobody ever ran a successful pizza delivery operation with more than one unit. It was just so difficult to do with the challenges of delivery. That motivated me. My thought was, “I’m going to figure this out, and when I do, I’ll have a monopoly because no one else knows how to do it.” That is exactly what happened. I had to come up with many, many innovations to make delivery work without compromising the product, and it was fun.

I don’t know why everybody doesn’t go into business for themselves. It enables you to put your personality into the job. You can do anything you want to do. It is your money. You are always trying new ideas. You see something, and you think, “Hey, why can’t I apply that idea here in my pizza operation?” I just loved doing that.

To do anything well in life, you have to be disciplined. A lot of people tell me I am disciplined, and I think I am the opposite. In fact, I say the reason that I look disciplined is because I am so undisciplined. I have to make rules to protect myself from myself. I do a lot of things that other people do not have to do to keep from just going off the deep edge.

My number one goal my entire life, as far as I can remember, was to be a good Catholic. I was a long way from it for a lot of years, but at least I’m going to get around to it. That is something I have to get around to before I am gone. I have to be a good Catholic because that is what I am supposed to be, and I do not want to go to hell. I am selfish.

Over the years, I have added to my devotional life. There was not a whole lot in the early years, but there was a little thread there. For example, a couple things I would never do is take the name of God in vain. I might use every other word, but I wouldn’t take the name of God in vain, and I cringed when someone else did it. Anytime I heard it, I would say to myself, “Blessed be the name of God.” That is a virtue that I picked up from my early years, being raised by the nuns in the orphanage. Today, our culture is so devoid of virtue that it has to be laced into everything we’re teaching in the schools. We are creatures of habit, so it is important to do things that are good that become habits.

Sr. Berarda always said, “Tommy, be a good boy.” That just resonates in my head, I think, subliminally. I think they programmed me. I am supposed to be good. I am supposed to be honest. I am supposed to treat people with respect and the way I want to be treated. I cannot remember how many times Sr. Berarda said, “Honesty is always the best policy.” I can remember asking, “Always Sister?” She said, “Yes Tommy, always.” I always felt that way in business. I have made many decisions in business that cost me money in the short term. I often looked forward to the opportunity to point that out to my team, to say, “Here I’m taking my own money. It’s going to cost me $200,000  to do that, but it’s the right thing to do.” I wanted them to do the same thing when they encountered a situation that they knew was not right, even if it cost them.

I probably broke a few records for spending money on ostentatious things. I would say in the late 80’s after things really got good for us, I spent hundreds of millions of dollars on things that I found a way to justify. I had one of the largest car collections in the world. I paid $8.1 million, broke all the records for a price paid for a car. I had a big Frank Lloyd Wright collection; I was named one of the top 100 art collectors in the country. I was building a huge home by what I thought was the finest architect in the world at the time. I was traveling all over the world, staying at the best places. Everything I wore was custom made. I had this lodge up on Drummond Island that someone referred to it as rustic luxurious, and it was nothing like anywhere in the world.

I was spending money like water. I picked up this book by C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity. I had heard about it, but I had never read it because he was not Catholic. There is a chapter in there on pride. They call it The Great Sin. C.S. Lewis really talked about me. I was doing all these things; everything in my life was to make more money than anyone else, have more things than anyone else, have better things than anyone else, play sports better than anyone else.

I couldn’t sleep at night, because I started thinking about the effect this book had on me. I hated show-offs, and I said, “I’m a closet show-off.” I didn’t want to look like a show-off, but I really was pretty obsessed with impressing people. It was not something I was chomping at the bit to admit, but it was true. I just decided that I had to change, so I took a millionaire’s vow of poverty. I gave up all ostentatious luxuries.

I could not give up everything because I am married. I was driving a Cadillac and a Continental at the time and my wife had a Jaguar and a Cadillac. I got rid of my cars, bought a Buick, and said, “Honey, maybe I’ll get rid of these cars, maybe get a Buick for you.” She said, “Well you took the vow, I didn’t.” So, she still has a Cadillac and a Jaguar. I stopped building the house, I sold all the toys, the boats, the airplanes, the lodge. It seems that up till that time I was really working hard for my own benefit, even though I was trying to be a good Catholic, going to mass every day, saying the rosaries every day. From then on out, I have been working to grow the business to help the church, not myself.

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